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THIS May was the 25th anniversary of Labour’s 1997 election victory. I voted Labour on that day (for the late Bernie Grant) and I doubt there were too many on the left who weren’t pleased that the Tories had suffered a huge defeat.
Of course we knew that Tony Blair, whatever his past, was not a man of the left. Indeed one could hardly miss the New Labour message. History and particularly Labour and labour history was not part of it.
Blair was the only Labour leader not to appear at the Durham Miners Gala (Starmer has appeared virtually) despite representing a nearby constituency.
There wasn’t perhaps all that much that was genuinely new about New Labour (if one looks at the history of social democratic parties). However making a peace of sorts with the tabloid press and being friendly to business and its money seemed like a good idea at the time (at least to New Labour). Twenty-five years on the legacies of Murdoch and PFI look less appealing.
Labour produced a short video to mark the 2022 anniversary fronted up by Blair himself (you can find it on Labour social media). There isn’t much in it that is not at least mildly positive. I think I’ve been in a minority on the left for a long time in arguing that some of the things done in the early (pre-2003) New Labour years represented moderate progress.
Blair mentions the minimum wage, improvements in public services and Britain becoming a more tolerant society. He argues that New Labour made a Britain more at ease with itself.
Perhaps, but the argument always was, again one that I’ve made for years, is that with two massive Parliamentary majorities in 1997 and 2001 Labour could and should have done more. There was, for example, modest legislation on employment rights. It should have been more robust but at least, unlike from 2010, it pushed things a little in the right direction for working people (it is not mentioned in the Blair video).
The impression was that Blair became frustrated that he could not do more, more quickly, domestically. Hence in part the 2003 Iraq war. Here dramatic results were achieved quickly and the world is still paying the price for it.
Britain was not a country at ease with itself from 2003 and Blair trashed his own reputation with many, meaning that the record of New Labour which I’ve outlined above was largely forgotten.
That brings us to the 25th anniversary video. Was it in fact a good idea, keeping in mind how bad New Labour was at history? No-one much under 40 now will remember the 1997 victory now. Probably rather more would prefer not to be reminded about Blair again and in particular Iraq.
WS Sanders, who went on to be a Fabian leader, in his work Early Socialist Days wrote about his time in the early Battersea socialist movement in the 1880s.
He mentions the presence of some old Chartists, followers of Bronterre O’Brien who had been active in the 1840s and 1850s and were still promoting his theories. Sanders notes that the new generation regarded them as historical survivors — worthy of respect — but also as people whose ideas and strategies belonged to another age.
History repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. Starmer’s decision not to back RMT strikes echoes pre-1997 Blair — but it is just repeating sad old mantras of 30 years ago.
An even bigger irony is that it was a member of one of the RMT’s forerunners James Holmes who moved motion at the 1899 TUC that led to the setting up of the Labour Party.
Keith Flett is a socialist historian.
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